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What in the World is Black Fashion?

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If you live in New York and you're African American, chances are you've heard the term Black Fashion in some circle. It has mostly been used to describe African-American fashion designers. If you lined up the work of Tracy Reese, Stephen Burrows, and Sammy B., would there be a common thread that could be traced back to their race? The common thread in each of their collections would be a reflection of American fashion. Black Fashion is American Fashion.

As early as the 1700s, African Americans were creating clothing in this country. The term used then was dressmaker, but in actuality these were amazing designers. The lady of the house would say to her dressmaker, "I'm going to a dinner tonight with Dr. Smith and his wife and I need a great dress." The dressmaker would interpret that request into a gorgeous dinner dress for her "client" better known as slave owner then. Thank goodness that Elizabeth Keckley, the designer for Mary Todd Lincoln (the wife of President Abraham Lincoln) wrote the autobiography, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. It gave us a glimpse into the influence African Americans have had on American fashion.

A few years ago I approached a designer about being in a fashion show that featured designers of color. Her response was no with the following quote, "Most of the time when you associate yourself with some sort of event (read black fashion event) then you get put into a niche. I think it's dangerous for me because I use cultural, vibrant prints. It will convince the diverse crowd of buyers and editors that I am targeting the [AA] African-American community." She went on, "I am by no means afraid to be identified as an African-American designer, but it's my desire to appeal to the masses and I think there is a wider way to do this." However, some designers such as the late highly respected Mr. Kelly, the first American and the first person of color to be admitted as a member of the French Federation of Fashion and of Ready-to-Wear of Couturiers and Fashion Designers, used the Black perspective as a way to describe his aesthetic. "I design differently because I am Patrick Kelly, and Patrick Kelly is black" is a quote that esteemed designer Mr. Kelly would use in his interviews.

When the words "Black fashion" are used together, the goal is to really express American fashion through the lens of African Americans. It is our perspective on American fashion and that perspective is as diverse as floral and flirty dresses by Tracy Reese, color blocked lettuce edge dresses by Stephen Burrows or a sexy and fierce bodysuit by emerging designer Sammy B. We should find a term that defines the influence African Americans have in fashion. Any suggestions or is there no need for such a term at all?